Organisers of US group that met Modi sought
$16,000 a seat
Organisers of the US delegation to India that met Gujarat Chief
Minister Narendra Modi had canvassed for participants in the trip
at prices ranging from $3,000 to $16,000, said a media report
here. The business delegation »
The headline on Zee News at 5:09pm
today read: “America opens its gates for ‘very dynamic’ Narendra
The Business Standard in an article posted a few minutes earlier,
at 4:57pm, wrote: “After UK, now US softens stand on Modi.”
Indeed three members of the US Congress, along with a few US
business leaders, did meet with the Gujarat Chief Minister today
in Gujarat. But should we infer any shift in US policy towards
In short, no.
From 2009 to 2011, I worked in the US House of Representatives as
a senior foreign policy aide where I often organized the overseas
trips for a member of Congress. The Congressional calendar is
divided broadly in two categories: days when there are votes on
the House floor and recess days—which members of Congress can
spend in their home districts, or at political fundraisers in
other parts of the US, or in countries they deem relevant to their
legislative work and/or constituents. Each of these trips have to
be approved by the House, especially where public funds are used.
When a member of the US Congress travels abroad, he/she travels as
an official of the United States and carries a US diplomatic
passport. But does this person represent the views of the United
States? Most often not.
Consider this: in June 2011, (now former) Congressman Dennis
Kucinich, a Democrat, made a highly controversial and criticized
trip to Syria where he met with disgraced Syrian president Bashar
al-Assad. The US State Department distanced itself from Kucinich
by saying that “(Kucinich) did not ask to be accompanied on his
meetings, nor has he given us a debrief, nor was he carrying any
The State Department was, in effect, re-iterating a point that
both Democratic and Republic administrations have long held: we
the State Department set foreign policy, not members of the US
House of Representatives.
In fact members of the US Congress do not even have to follow US
policy while traveling broad. In 2009, for example, two members of
the US Congress visited war torn Gaza to survey the damage caused
by the US funded Israeli blockade. Their visit went against the US
government’s policy of not sending any of its officials to Hamas
But here again is the point: members of Congress are free to do as
they like, within the House Ethics parameters and US law, because
they do not represent the ruling administration.
Let us then examine the delegation who met Modi, led by
Congressman Aaron Schock (Republic-Illinois), Congresswoman
Cynthia Lummis (Republican—Wyoming) and Congresswoman Cathy M
Rodgers (Republican—Washington state).
If the US is signaling a change in its policy towards Modi, it
would send a representative of the Obama administration—likely a
State Department official—to meet with Modi, not three junior
Republican members of the House of Representatives, a body that
plays third fiddle in the hierarchy of US foreign policy behind
the Administration and the US Senate.
The visit by the junior lawmakers should not be read for something
it is not: a sign that the US government has changed its views on
Modi. Ultimately if the US is to grant a visa to Modi, this policy
shift would have to come from the White House itself, in
accordance with a rethinking of how the International Religious
Freedom Act of 1998 can be re-examined to permit Modi’s entry. As
of yet, the White House has not given any indication of a shift in
That said, the visit and Schock and his group remains significant
because it shows that more US lawmakers are willing to meet with
Modi, despite the US State Department’s ban on Modi for his role
in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Schock’s visit is also interesting for
another reason: it shows the strange bedfellows Modi supporters
are making in the US, many of whom are far right of centre.
When Modi won a third term, it was Schock who stood up on the
House Floor to praise Modi. But today Modi might not want to be
seen too close to him: Schock faces a House Ethics Investigation
for misuse of funds. According to his home state paper, the
Chicago Tribune, a Congressional investigatory panel voted 6-0 to
investigate Schock on the grounds that “there is substantial
reason to believe that Rep. Schock violated federal law, House
rules and standards of conduct.” At the heart of the issue is
whether Schock solicited donations of over $5,000 for his
political action committee in violation of US campaign laws.
Schock is not the only scandal prone member of Congress to support
Modi. In the last Congress, the most vocal supporter of Modi was
disgraced Congressman Joe Walsh (Republican—Illinois).
Walsh’s two years in Congress were marked by revelations that he
owes $117,000 USD in child support. Likewise his policy positions
earned him criticism from even his own support base. Walsh is
skeptical of global warming, for example, and has said the science
on the issue is “not definitive.” When asked about securing
America’s borders, Walsh said the US should install medieval style
moats with alligators at the US-Mexico border. When a Chicago
mosque was shot at in August 2012 with a pellet gun, Walsh stood
at a spot just 15 miles away from the mosque and said radical
Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.”
Last year, Walsh wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton to grant Modi a visa for his work in “establishing Gujarat
as the most business-friendly state in India.” He added in the
letter that “(Modi) is widely believed to be a serious contender
for the 2014 election for Indian Prime Minister.” (The State
Department responded by saying there was no change in official US
policy towards Modi.)
Supporting Walsh was the Indian Americans For Freedom, a group
whose goal is “individual liberty, free enterprise, freedom from
bureaucrat ‘babus.’” On the top of the website the IAFF lists its
two inspirations as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy and the
website includes a collection of videos, including one entitled
“Joe Walsh will always tell you the Truth. Radical Islam is a
threat to All!!” One of the videos on their website makes an
allegation that Tammy Duckworth, a disabled US war veteran who
eventually defeated Walsh in the election, is a supporter of the
US terror listed group HAMAS.
But those who think Walsh was defeated because of his support of
Modi are being too generous to Modi’s opponents. It was Walsh’s
own incompetence, coupled with the videos of him yelling at his
own female voters, that convinced his own base to turn on him.
Indeed after Walsh’s loss, even supporters of Walsh tried to save
face. Dr. Bharat Berai (who recently met with Modi as part of a
Jewish delegation) said, “Walsh’s opposition was against radicals
in the Islamic community. His loss in the election has nothing to
do with his stand on Chief Minister Modi’s visa.”
What is fascinating about today’s meeting with Modi is that the
Congressional delegation was joined by the National Indian
American Public Policy Institute, a group whose founder’s page is
a direct copy and paste from the Indian Americans for Freedom (IAFF).
The National Indian American Public Policy Institute might be
different from the IAFF, the group that accused Walsh’s challenger
of being a HAMAS supporter, but from the looks of the two
websites, there appears to be overlap in the organizations’
Either way, neither of these groups seemed skilled in policy
advocacy or effective messaging.
So what then does today’s meeting with Modi mean? It is too early
to tell. Will other, more respected (and more ranking) members of
Congress also follow suit, especially from Obama’s Democratic
party? If so, then perhaps we could be witnessing a strong push on
the US State Department to lift the US visa ban on Modi.
As of now, Modi’s supporter in the US have attracted mostly fringe
elements of the US political establishment.
Which begs the question: if Modi’s supporters in the US want to
reshape Modi’s image, why then align with a candidate like Walsh
who represents all the qualities—intolerance, misogyny, fiscal
irresponsibility—that Modi is trying to distance himself from?
Janmohamed is a writer in Ahmedabad. He is @ZahirJ on Twitter.